Something in the water? Neighbors speculate about ‘cancer cluster’

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MELVIN, Ill. (WCIA) — Ask Andrew Shelton, and he’ll tell you that talk about the water in Melvin has been ongoing for decades.

There’s something in the water, people say, and others would agree.

Shelton, now in his 30s, first heard that kind of talk when he was a child —when he was too young to understand the implications. As an adult, though, he remembers exactly when he began to wonder about the water, about what, if anything, it was doing to people in Melvin: He’d started mowing lawns in his hometown at age 11 and built up a customer base of 26 people that he maintained contact with for years.

One of his customers — almost a neighbor, they lived that close together — developed “some sort of cancer in his intestine that prevented him from being able to move without pain,” Shelton remembers. “He was under constant pain medication and couldn’t hardly get out of bed.”

After the diagnosis, Shelton said, the man only lived “6-8 months before he finally passed on.”

“(His wife) was already heartbroken enough, losing her husband, but when she passed shortly after… they found out she had a form of cancer in her as well,” Shelton said. “They were the first couple that I really started noticing, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ ‘What’s this caused from?'”

In a small town, people talk. So that’s what Shelton did after their deaths.

“The other people I talked to about it, they thought it was a water-related issue too,” he said. “They blew it off just like, ‘Oh there’s rust in the water, it’s just water, don’t worry about it — that’s just the way it is around here.’ So, everyone I talked to just blew it off like ‘whatever.'”

Then, cancer hit home.

In the summer of 2018, Shelton’s mother — then 63 — was suddenly ill with what doctors thought was some sort of infection. She took antibiotics for months before deciding in the fall that she needed a second opinion. She trekked to Bloomington, where a doctor there decided to use a camera to scope out the inside of her intestines.

“When they went to do the test on her, they couldn’t get the scope in because it kept hitting something really solid,” Shelton said, adding that it caused his mother “extreme pain.”

A colonoscopy caused the section between her small and large intestines to rupture and landed her in the emergency room at Carle Foundation Hospital, where an emergency surgery revealed that her “inner intestinal wall was riddled with Stage IV cancer.”

“At that point, she was so weak that a few days later, she passed away,” Shelton said. “And they said even with chemotherapy, she would have made it only another six months, maybe. I had just lost my grandma four months before that; hearing that it was cancer made me think back to when my grandpa died in 1998 from cancer as well.”

“All I could think of is: I’m losing my grandparents, my parents, and I don’t know what’s causing them to die so quickly.”

Cancer cluster?

Some Ford County cancer rates are higher than the state and national rates: Data from 2012-2016 shows that Ford County’s death incident rate per 100,000 people was 208.8 — 40.3 incidents higher than the state’s rate (168.5) and 47.8 incidents higher than the national rate (161).

Rates of new female breast and lung cancer diagnoses are also higher than state and national averages; rates of colorectal cancer are slightly higher than the state’s, but lower than the national totals.

And while officials with the Ford County Public Health Department know there’s an issue with cancer rates — cancer is one of the top five concerns in the county, according to a recent FCPHD survey — they can’t pinpoint a specific reason.

“The biggest problem with finding clusters in Ford County from our level — from the county level — (is that) Ford County is not very big,” FCPHD administrator Lana Sample said. “It has a small population. If we start pinpointing what towns or zip codes have specific types of cancer — or narrow it down to cities or even locations within the cities, now you’re starting to get into personal health information.”

For general health purposes, FCPHD has tracked environmental variables — air quality, drinking water safety and environmental toxins, among others.

In 2014, FCPHD officials noted in a community health plan that Ford County had gone from being ranked second-healthiest county in Illinois to 52nd by 2014, calling the decrease “dramatic.”

Per that report, Ford County is also ranked 27th in the state for environmental “releases” into the air, with noncancerous health risk scores related to air quality increasing 112 percent from 1995-2002.

Solae — now DuPont and now under new ownership — in Gibson City was responsible for the releases of N-Hexan in the area, the report added, noting that in 2002, it was one of the “dirtiest/worst facilities” in the U.S. based on “major chemical releases or waste generation.”

Water quality in the area fares slightly better than air quality, but officials still had some concerns, noting that “the top three leading sources of water quality problems that impair the rivers, streams and creeks within Ford County are agriculture runoff,” city-located chemical discharges and “hydromodification” — a form of engineering that re-routes natural water sources, which can lead to decreased water quality.

Five watersheds are included within the county, including the Iroquois, Mackinaw, Upper Sangamon and two sections of the Vermilion, per the FCPHD 2014 community health report. Within those watersheds are 34 individual “waterbodies” that “have reported…surface water problems.” Of those, nine were ranked “high priority” for regulatory action.

Still, health officials are reluctant to cite any environmental source as a leading cause of any Ford County cancer cases.

“You go into this with a concern, you have to keep an open mind to know what is the cause,” FCPHD’s Sample said. “Could it be farming? Yes. Could it be the way people take care of themselves, could it just be smoking? I mean, there’s just so many factors that go into that. You always hear the ‘there’s something in the water.’ You know, is there? I don’t know the answer to that question.”

CDC: Cancer clusters a rare occurrence

Since 1990, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has operated by a set of guidelines for investigating cancer clusters, which the organization defines as “a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.

As late as 2013, CDC officials noted that “finding a causal association between environmental contaminants and cancer is rare in a community cancer cluster setting.”

“Evidence reported by state and local health agencies and federal agencies since 1990 that would suggest otherwise is limited, and most investigations of suspected cancer clusters do not lead to the identification of an associated environmental contaminant,” officials wrote in a 2013 update.

CDC officials noted that “state and local health agencies receive approximately 1,000 inquiries per year regarding suspected cancer clusters.” In Ford County, Sample said she’s heard talk of clusters, but that information has come to her via “word of mouth,” not via formal inquiries.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has “not been contacted by anyone about cancer in Ford County, but we typically only do an investigation if there’s a known exposure,” spokesperson Melaney Arnold said in an email to WCIA.

To determine whether a cluster exists or not, local and state health departments would have to conduct their own investigations to determine “the likelihood that the observed cancers represent an actual excess, could potentially be related to one another and share a common etiology,” CDC guidelines say.

That investigation is a four-step process with caveats at every step, meaning that “only a small fraction of cancer cluster inquiries might meet the statistical and etiological criteria to support a cluster investigation through all steps.”

Officially, Ford County has never made it to step one of the investigative process.

“That’s what I’d like to find: preventative care.”

County government officials may not be able to definitively say whether there’s a cancer-causing issue with Ford County’s water, but Shelton isn’t taking any chances: The husband and wife who died of cancer one after the other had insisted to him that there was “something in the water.”

“They blamed it on the town (water) even though they didn’t have the money to fight it,” he said. “If they had had the money, they said they were going to try to fight it — to try and find out what is causing the issue, because they loved this little town.”

It wouldn’t have been the first Ford County fight about water: Shelton’s father was once mayor of the village. The way Shelton remembers it, fighting to get a new water tower was the biggest battle his now-elderly father fought during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“When my dad was mayor, he wanted this town to come up a level — to try and get everything up to where it needs to be,” Shelton said. “But some of the town elders were fighting him, saying, ‘Oh, well, it’s fine, there’s no need to change it.’ Basically, the older generation didn’t want to let go of the money.”

Current mayor Harold Forbes, who Shelton said succeeded his father, had better luck.

“He was able to get it passed where we get to pay a little bit more every month on our water bill to help pay for it,” Shelton said. “It’s a 50-50 split if I remember, but we have a new water tower and new water main piping down.”

That said, Shelton still maintains a water filtration system in his home to filter out various impurities still in the water — mostly rust, he says, and chlorine, the levels of which aren’t high enough to violate Environmental Protection Agency standards.

For Shelton, the filtration system is a means of assuming control in the face of the unknown.

“I did worry about (the water), but once I got the filtration system, I’m less worried about it,” he said.

Like many in Ford County, Shelton will never know exactly what caused his mother’s cancer — whether it was airborne pollutants, personal health decisions, or something in the water.

But, he said, he hopes that more information about the importance of cancer screenings could save someone else’s life.

“I think screenings could have helped her a lot,” he said. “She was on antibiotics for two months — it never helped. There were no (cancer) screenings. That’s what I’d like to find: preventative care.”

And it’s exactly what FCPHD had in mind when it hired a new community health educator back in December: have one person dedicated to raising health awareness across the county, including upping the number of screenings for breast and lung cancers.

“One of the thoughts is, ‘Do we have high cancer rates because people are going and getting these preventative screens?'” FCPHD’s Sample said. “Are people getting more mammograms? Are people going to the doctor more often and finding these diagnoses earlier? Is that the reason our (cancer) numbers are higher? Or is it because we have a high number of people that are diagnosed with cancer?”

The grant-funded health educator position is tasked with raising the number of Ford County women who receive breast cancer screenings to 81.1 percent of the population — up from 65.8 percent in 2012. That educator will also work with area hospitals and doctor offices to emphasize the “seriousness of cancer prevention and screening” and publicize ways to reduce cancer risk factors.

It’s too early for answers, but it could be a step in that direction for Ford County.

“Seeing my mom go through this and suffering and now knowing the answers — maybe someone out there can find out what’s causing it and get preventative care before it happens to someone else,” Shelton said.

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